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Book Reviews / Comptes rendus

Joshua M. Zeitz, White Ethnic New York: Jews, Catholics, and the Shaping of Postwar Politics. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007. 296 pp.

  • Jordan Stranger-Ross

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  • Jordan Stranger-Ross
    University of Victoria

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Joshua Zeitz’s lucid and provocative book about the centrality of ethnicity in post World War II New York promises to serve as a starting-point for significant further research. After a generation of scholarship that emphasized the whitening and weakening of European ethnicity in the middle decades of the twentieth century, Zeitz revives the earlier notion that (as stated by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan): “the point about the melting pot . . . is that it did not happen. At least not in New York.” Zeitz positions ethnicity as a counter-balance to scholarship that has productively, but sometimes reductively, emphasized race. As Zeitz puts it: “Race explains a good deal about postwar politics, but not everything” (7). “Whiteness,” he asserts, “did not equal sameness” (5). Divisions among white ethnics—and particularly the “highly salient cultural differences” that separated Jews from Irish and Italian Catholics (6)—were sufficient to splinter the New Deal coalition in New York “long before race became a central issue in local or national politics” (93). The book has notable strengths and weaknesses, both of which seem likely springboards for further inquiry.

The strengths of the book are significant, and they should give inspiration to other scholars interested in mid-century ethnicity. Largely concerned with culture and politics, Zeitz nonetheless establishes the social historical importance of ethnicity in postwar New York. Ethnicity shaped residential locations, marital choices, workplace opportunities, and schooling experiences (11–38). Divided social and institutional contexts encouraged very different views of the world. Whereas Jews placed dissent at the core of citizenship and imagined fascism the greatest peril to America, Catholics revered authority and saw Communism as the nation’s greatest threat. With contrasting conceptions of their communities and countries (as well as their enemies), Jews and Catholics voted differently (depending on how you count) from at least the 1940s onward and found themselves on opposing sides of local political controversies (94, 89-90, 114-117). In sum, Zeitz makes a convincing case that European ethnicity continued to shape both daily life and landmark events in postwar New York. His integration of social and political history demonstrates the ongoing linkages between urban ethnic communities and political constituencies. Case studies of other cities seem bound to follow.

Despite its strengths, White Ethnic New York may also frustrate some historians of ethnicity and urban life. Two likely qualms lie at the very core of the book. First, Zeitz makes somewhat idiosyncratic and inconsistent use of the concept of ethnicity. The book begins by sensibly (if not entirely grammatically) defining ethnicity as “the intersection between religion, national origins, and class” (3). Whether real or imagined, “national origins” are usually understood as an important member of this triumvirate. However, they play a rather ambiguous role in Zeitz’s study. Throughout the book, Irish and Italian Catholics are identified separately (Zeitz typically refers to “Irish and Italian Catholics,” rather than merely Catholics), but Zeitz offers no sustained examination of national origins within the Catholic fold. His tantalizing suggestion that over time, “Irish and Italian New Yorkers constructed a more united cultural and social front,” receives little further explanation (12). With Jews an only ambivalently “national” group, readers might ask whether this is really an account of the role of religion—rather than ethnicity—in social life and politics. The haziness of the book in this regard should provoke fuller explorations of the place of nationality in postwar ethnicity.

Second, Zeitz is needlessly stark in his discussion of ethnicity and race. Suggesting at the outset that historians have erred in “grafting race so tightly to ethnicity,” Zeitz goes too far in prying the two apart (5). Even as they soured on civil rights and gravitated to politicians advocating “law and order,” Zeitz suggests that New Yorkers were expressing the reality that the city had become a “difficult place to live,” rather than concerns about race per say (147–156). But here Zeitz’s claims, heavily reliant on opinion polls, fail to convince. Segregation and discrimination were hardly invisible to white ethnic New Yorkers before the 1960s. Instead, they made choices that exacerbated these patterns. For example, residential segregation reflects widespread residential choices and broad based exclusionary practices. Although Zeitz acknowledges the existence of “grassroots” resistance to integration, he fails to inlcude this resistance in his portrayal of white ethnics (150-155). What did Jews and Irish and Italian Catholics say (and do) about residential and employment discrimination in the early postwar period? Did they differ in their opinions or actions? Zeitz offers little of the fine-grained analysis of the early chapters in answer to these important questions. As a result, White Ethnic New York misses a chance to reframe discussions of postwar racial politics from a perspective that is attentive to ethnically inflected worldviews. However, future scholars are likely to thank Zeitz for this oversight, as both the strengths and weaknesses of the book leave readers with enticing questions. A book likely to prompt others, White Ethnic New York is a most welcome addition to the nascent literature on postwar urban ethnicity in the United States.